Belfast Telegraph

Heineken Cup hopes grow as D-Day meeting looms

By Niall Crozier

Two weeks from now, the Heineken Cup 'stakeholders' meet in Dublin with a view to deciding on the tournament's future. Assuming each of the parties turns up – and that's not guaranteed – it could be a lively affair.

The past week has seen the launches of 2013-14 Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup in Cardiff, where representatives of the English clubs and Welsh regions assembled, in Dublin, where Ireland's four provinces were in attendance, and in Glasgow where Scotland's two districts were present.

On Monday it was the turn of the Italians to parade themselves before the media and pretend that all is well with the Heineken Cup. Alas, it is not.

With the competitions kicking off this weekend, the English and French clubs appear intent on taking things to the brink of destruction in order to secure a greater share of the television pot and a reduced number of PRO12 participants.

Speaking in Glasgow, Scottish Rugby chief executive Mark Dodson addressed the thorny issue of negotiations on a new deal. One can only hope his wise words may yet penetrate the ears, hearts and minds of those at whom they were aimed.

"The current situation is not good for European rugby," he said. No disputing that statement.

"The Heineken Cup is a tremendous tournament for players and fans alike," he continued. Again, no disagreement.

"It's a competition that is growing consistently. We need to make it better and if we have to make certain concessions to other people to make that happen, then that's what we will do," he went on, essentially offering a large olive branch.

And then came the most heartening of his words of wisdom: "The idea that we've been kicking this issue into the long grass is wrong: we're working to get some clarity as soon as possible."

Assess that statement and you will find three component parts on which there is agreement, a fourth that amounts to an unequivocal undertaking to compromise in the interests of the tournament's future, and a fifth which affirmed ongoing efforts to have the matter resolved in the near future.

But there can be no rolling over to placate requests which are unreasonable and demand more than can be given. Thus it was heartening to see Scottish Rugby's chief draw a line in the sand, confirming that as being one that cannot be crossed.

Note his words: "We will not go into a tournament which is not sanctioned by the IRB. What's clear from France, and what's clear from the IRB, is that they are pushing people back to ERC to negotiate."

Derek McGrath, the ERC chief executive, sounded a note of optimism by saying: "Everyone involved in our discussions is ready to make changes, but we need engagement to achieve proper negotiation.

"I am very confident that we can find an outcome while recognising the valid interests on all sides of the debate."

Tellingly, like Dobson, he stood firm in saying: "Any proposed new competition is nothing more than leveraging the value that has been built over 18 years by all of the constituents of European rugby. We will not prosper if the interests of the few are served over the interests of the many."

Amen to that.

Affirmation came at Monday's Italian launch in Milan where Alfredo Gavazzi, president of the Federazione Italiana Rugby, underlined this steadily-toughening stance by adding: "I do not believe an Anglo-French competition would be in any way suitable. The six unions have stated that they wish to keep the Heineken Cup and they are absolutely united on this point of view.

"The Italian Federation also believes that it is crucial to keep four of our clubs in the Amlin Challenge Cup to allow our young players to develop."

Significantly, he finished with the words: "Overall, I am confident that an agreement can be reached."

Let us hope he is right.

Belfast Telegraph


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